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Excavations in the Arikamedu area on the right bank of the Ariyankuppam river, 6 km South of Pondicherry town, have revealed that a port town flourished here over 2000 years ago which had trading links with Rome and Greece. And it continued to flourish during the Chola period in the 10th and 11th centuries.Vailankanni Church

More recently, French dreams of having an empire in India began and ended with Pondicherry. The French arrived in 1673 and ruled for the better part of 300 years till, in 1954, Pondicherry became a part of the Indian Union. The Union Territory of Pondicherry comprises of four scattered coastal enclaves - Pondicherry (or Puducheri, as it is called today) and Karaikal in Tamilnadu, Yanam in Andhra Pradesh and, Mahe in Kerala on the West coast.

These scattered territories contain in them the best of the French influence in India, which makes them, particularly its headquarters Pondicherry, something unique and quite different from the rest of India. Traces of the French influence are seen in the policeman's 'kepi', spellings on signboards and buildings, names of roads and public places, and the accented Tamil, English and French that can still be heard. The French heritage is also visible in the neatly laid roads, wide beaches, imposing churches, the statues of Joan of Arc and Joseph Dupleix, who was the Governor of the French colonies from 1742-54 and, in some superb restaurants which serve authentic and delectable French cuisine!

The abiding influence which now permeates everything in Pondicherry is that of Sri Aurobindo, the great seer, prophet and poet of the twentieth century. The stormy petrel of the Indian freedom movement in Bengal, Aurobindo moved to French Pondicherry in 1910 when the British started hounding him. Here he founded an Ashram to give shape to his ideals - his vision that an era dominated by man's mind would come next in the evolutionary cycle; and that adaptation to the age of the super-mind would be easier through a system of 'internal Yoga', synthesising yoga and modern science.

In 1924, Aurobindo was joined by a Paris-born painter-musician who became his disciple and close companion till his death in 1950. Coming to be known as 'The Mother', she guided the growth of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Today, the Ashram draws people from all over the world, and its inmates have become a community that plays a dominant role in keeping Pondicherry an 'oasis of serenity'. The birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, 15th August, is a very special day at the Ashram, when thousands of people from all over the world visit it to pay homage to him.

Under the influence of Sri Aurobindo Ashram several other yoga learning centres have come up in Pondicherry including the world renowned International Centre for Yoga Education & Research, popularly known as the Ananda Ashram. An annual International Yoga Festival, held from 4th to 7th January, attracts participants from every part of the globe. Aiming to develop the conscious process at all levels - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, the festival programme includes practical yoga classes and discussions on various yogic topics.

Temples and churches form an integral part of the ethos of Pondicherry. The striking thing during a visit is that people worshipping in churches or temples or those paying homage at a dargah, do so in complete harmony! The most significant of the important churches is the terracotta-and-white painted Eglise De Sacre Coeur De Jesus, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is famous for its gothic architecture and rare and beautiful stained glass panels depicting the life of Christ. The other notable churches are the Eglise De Notre Dame de la Immaculate Conception and the Eglise De Notre Dame des Anges in Pondicherry, as well as the Eglise De Notre Dame de Lourdes in Villiyanur, 9 km from Pondicherry.

More than 350 temples dot the region in and around Pondicherry; some, built by the Cholas, date back to the 10th and 12th centuries. The most celebrated are the 18th century Veda Puriswarar Temple, the Manakulavinayagar Temple, the Panchanadeeswarar Temple at Thiruvandarkoil, with its 10th century sculptures, and the 12th century Sri Gokilambal Thirukameswarar Temple, which is considered architecturally the finest, and is located at Villiyanur. Around mid-May each year, on the day of the full moon, Villiyanur celebrates the Car festival when the gaily decorated temple car, towering over 15m high, is drawn by hundreds of devotees and taken out in a procession around the town.Pondicherry Temples

The Tamil poet-patriot Subramanya Bharathi, popularly known as Bharathiyar, came to Pondicherry in 1908, a fugitive from British India, like Sri Aurobindo (who came two years later). He wrote some of his finest patriotic and romantic compositions here. Another great Tamil poet, Kanakasubburatnam, whose works compare with Bharathi's in patriotic fervour, was born in Pondicherry. He assumed the name Bharathidasan, meaning 'the disciple of Bharathi'. The houses of both these highly revered poets, converted to the Bharathi and Bharatidasan Memorial Museums, are visited in large numbers by the people of Tamil Nadu.

The lovely 1.5 km beach is clean and the water cool, soothing and unpolluted - ideal for sunbathing, swimming or relaxing. Cooled by the breeze from the Bay of Bengal, the promenade attracts the residents for strolls, jogging or merely sitting on the parapet by the sea and letting the mind wander.

Just North of the border, in Tamil Nadu, is the 'City of Dawn' Auroville, envisioned as the 'Universal Town' and developed under the guidance of The Mother with the cooperation of many nations. Launched in 1968, and still being developed, it symbolises an experiment in international living where people from different faiths, nationalities and beliefs can live in peace and harmony. The vast meditation hall and spiritual centre, Matrimandir, lies at the heart of the township, surrounded by 800 acres of land. The 1000-odd residents live in 14 communes, speak 55 different languages, but have a common goal - to evolve into fuller human beings.

Eight k.m. south of Pondicherry is Chunnambar, renowned for its beautiful beaches and scenic backwaters. A beach resorts and Water Sports Centre here offer opportunities for yachting, wind-surfing and boating, as also a thrilling high speed ride on a hydro-plane. You can even take a sea cruise and watch dolphins at play. Another really pleasant and relaxing experience is a river cruise from the new port in Uppalam to Arikamedu, the site of the ancient Roman settlement. Karaikal, the second region of the Union Territory in Tamil Nadu, lies 132 km south of Pondicherry along the coast. It has a rich religious heritage and is the chosen destination for many pilgrims in search of peace and tranquility. Of the many shrines in the area, the most popular are the Darbaranyeswar Temple at Thirunallar, the Dargah of Mastan Syed Dawood, the Nagore Andavar Dargah and the Vailankanni Church, dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health, which is visited by people of all faiths. The temple at Thirunallar, five km West of Karaikal, houses Lord Saturn, and is said to be the only Saturn temple in India.

Shopping In Pondicherry - Pondicherry dolls, made of plaster of parts, papier-mache or terracotta, called 'Puducheri Bommai', and 'korai' mats, made from a species of grass found in the area, make good gifts. A guided tour of the Anglo-French Textile Mills, established over a century ago, is not only an educative experience, but also a rewarding one since you get a ten percent rebate on anything you buy there. The much acclaimed fabrics of the mill make ideal mementoes and gifts. You could also pick up fine marbled silk and hand-dyed fabrics, handmade paper, handloom rugs and bedspreads, pottery and incense sticks made at the Ashram.

If you are looking for a quiet sojourn, away from the cares of modern life and are seeking tranquility, inner peace and harmony, there are few places to rival Pondicherry.

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